If you own property on an in-land Michigan lake, you typically enjoy riparian rights to that lake. You can read more about riparian rights here and here. But what about back-lot property owners on an in-land lake? Are back-lot owners completely shut out of lake access? The answer is not as simple as one might think.
While back-lot owners do not enjoy riparian rights by virtue of their property ownership, there are a number of ways by which they may obtain rights to lake access and use. “Back-lot” owners are those property owners who own land behind the property owners directly abutting a lake. In other words, there is riparian property separating the back-lot property from the lake. One of the most common ways for back-lot owners to obtain lake access is through an access easement.
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An access easement provides the beneficiaries of that easement the right to cross riparian land to access a lake. The beneficiaries will be listed in the recorded legal instrument establishing the easement. The legal instrument establishing the easement will generally be recorded in the county register of deeds for the records relating to the riparian property. While an easement provides the right to access a lake, it does not actually transfer ownership. Legal title to the riparian property remains with the riparian owner.
Further, an access easement provides only access to the lake unless other rights are spelled out in the easement paperwork. In other words, non-access activities will typically be beyond the scope of the easement. It should be noted that an access easement will usually not include the right to install a dock or moor boats.
Back-lot owners can also obtain lake access through a prescriptive easement. There are times when back-lot owners cross riparian land to access a lake without permission. Technically, invading the riparian land without permission is a trespass. But if the back-lot owner uses the riparian land for lake access continuously for at least 15 years without permission, he or she may obtain a prescriptive easement.
Michigan courts have held that a prescriptive easement vests automatically (i.e. without court action) and runs with the land. Further, the 15 years may be combined by current and previous back-lot owners as long as the use is continuous. Prescriptive easements can be expansive. They could even include the right to build a dock or moor boats. Riparian owners should be vigilant to either prevent back-lot lake access over their property or give explicit permission to specific back-lot owners to prevent a prescriptive easement from vesting.
Lawsuits regarding back-lot lake access can be complicated and expensive. You should always contact a riparian attorney if you have questions regarding lake access whether you are a back-lot or riparian owner.
The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have experience in riparian rights matters. If you feel you have a riparian legal issue, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to speak with you.